Reality TV’s 20 year boom and bust cycle
The reality/entertainment TV boom of the 90s and noughties was huge. Global entertainment formats were hot properties as broadcasters loved the economics of these shows characterised by high volume, low cost programming consumed by audiences in their masses, all on prime time TV – and with minimal distraction from yet to be invented phenomena like social media, mobile device ubiquity, and OTT TV.
Big Brother, Survivor, The Apprentice, and many more became global hits as local versions were commissioned and produced all over the world: by the early 2000s it was not uncommon for a format to be replicated in 40, 50 or even (in the case of Millionaire) 100 local markets. Pop Idol (the giant American Idol in the US), X Factor, Got Talent and Dancing with the Stars (Strictly in the UK) fused reality with performance and everyone demanded their 15 minutes of fame. The inevitable ‘celebrity’ versions quickly followed. Global production businesses like Endemol and FremantleMedia grew massively on this reality/entertainment format boom as they outfoxed the established broadcast networks who complacently remained fixated on advertising as their primary revenue stream.
But the reality is that most of these formats are now declining in popularity with little sign of new global blockbusters being developed or accepted by today’s audiences.
No new global entertainment/reality formats launched in last 5 years
From an analysis of 20 years of new format development and adoption it is clear that the number of new global formats has dried up in the last 5 years. Using the number of local versions (30+) as a measure of global success, the chart below shows both the rise of global entertainment formats (from 1996 to 2010) and the total collapse in the last 5 years (2011-2015).
To hammer the point home, unless anyone can advise otherwise, there have been NO new global entertainment TV formats developed in the last 5 years that have matched the success of those included above. Why is this? And what can be done?
Why – part 1: Reality’s loss is Scripted’s gain
Most of these global formats rely heavily on the drama of following contestants through the journey of a reality competition. This technique and focus provides great storytelling potential and has been a prime factor in global growth and acceptance. But by repeating the technique too many times, and creating too many manufactured plot twists, audiences have seen through the tricks and manipulations and got tired. New formats have been, and continue to be, essential to keep the genre fresh, but risk averse broadcasters have chosen to flog the dying horses of what has worked for years and take more risks on new areas like drama.
As a result, entertainment/reality TV has effectively been commoditised in a race to the bottom as audiences have declined and previously Networked prime-time shows like X Factor (US) and Deal or No Deal are either cancelled or moving to off peak time slots or smaller cable channels.
The commoditisation of Reality TV has become obvious to audiences switching away from the ‘artificially manufactured’ drama present in Reality TV and towards ‘real’ drama with proper actors, great scripts and technical excellence. The basic human desire for great storytelling needs fulfilment, so as commoditised entertainment/reality takes a back seat, real drama fills the gap as we enjoy the current golden age of TV drama that is underway.
Why – part 2: The Complacency of Success
The major global production businesses, who have been the chief architects of the entertainment/reality boom, are mainly driven by short-term profit and cash targets and superbly led by teams well-versed in managing the steady-state or status quo. However, when external factors, such as changing audience behaviours and tastes, or technological advancements, threaten the status quo, an entrepreneurial mindset is required. Failure to adopt such a mindset, and adapt business models and expectations accordingly, has led to a period of managed decline in the global entertainment/reality production sector.
Whilst scripted TV has taken over from entertainment/reality TV to captivate audiences around the world, those production businesses with little drama heritage, or poorly developed strategies, are now playing catch-up and struggling to replace the declining revenues from entertainment/reality content.
A more entrepreneurial approach may have prevented this situation. Most of the formats included in this analysis owe their creation and success to the energy and brilliance of entrepreneurs rather than the more structured approach of big businesses – eg Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice), Simon Cowell/Fuller (Pop Idol, X Factor, Got Talent), Jon de Mol (Big Brother, The Voice). Well-managed, successful businesses have been built on the back of these breakthroughs, but the entrepreneurial approach came first. It is now required again because entrepreneurs think and act very differently to managers and leaders and can provide the necessary change in approach and style.
Audiences will always crave great storytelling – it is a basic ever-present human desire. But so is the desire for greater involvement and participation, certainly among the most influential and ardent fans. The solution for generating new entertainment/reality formats lies in harnessing this desire for participation and immersion in a way not previously possible. Many entertainment/reality formats recognised this and were supercharged in the early noughties by the promise of audience interaction in the form of voting – initially by phone and text. For many years viewers at home really thought they were deciding what happened in these shows and voted in their millions. However, it became apparent that audiences weren’t really as involved as they thought as producers and networks couldn’t keep their hands off deciding who ended up winning.
Enter social media in the last decade and people began to see that they could directly interact with their peers, influence them and build their own social media profiles. An era of ‘soft narcissism’ was launched and for the first time you could see the impacts of your social media activity. So far no-one has yet cracked how to combine social media with TV formats in a way that plays to the soft-narcissism that many people pursue, but this is where the opportunity lies. Use the various social media platforms to enable viewers to be seen to be making a difference, unlike voting which is largely anonymous and has no meaningful impact on the voter. Identify your core fans, give them tools and incentives to use their social media footprints to get involved, measure how influential they are and the impacts they have: on awareness, on sign-ups, on contestants, on fan-bases, and so on. Make your influential fans part of the show, give them the immersion and participation they desire and the entertainment/reality genre can boom again through a new wave of genuine immersion, involvement and people-power.
It can, and will, be done by someone; the technology exists (albeit in nascent form) but thus far TV and the pioneering technology businesses haven’t fused together to come up with a game-changing solution.
The TV industry needs to grab this next great opportunity after having taken its eye off the ball thereby allowing the technology players to take the lead on major recent developments like OTT (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu) and UGC (YouTube). What is required now is for the established TV industry, who have the most to lose, to embrace an entrepreneurial mindset and not fall victim again to the complacency that has led to a fruitless chase to preserve the status quo that simply doesn’t exist…
® Dan Allen